Thursday, 29 August 2013

One of the Colony

Dinner time. All the family are gathered, each replete with their usual antics and intentions.
            A lovely summer's day has blessed this fell hoarding of members, and sunlight burns brazenly, coating foreheads in thin coats of sweat.
            Food of all definition is arrayed on the table, each repast more delectable than its predecessor in appearance and smell.
            All in all, there are elements of a good day.
            And then, disaster.
            Distant buzzing grows louder until the ears are pricked in irritation; burgeoning, looming, and people begin to notice.
            Hands wave, attempt to slap, and expressions grow sour until, at last, a hand slams down inches from a chopping board dressed in rich fruits.
            This is an act of preservation. Yet, see the crushed wings, the dark green mess of pulp, and a single twitching leg.
            The fly is dead.

Most of us have been there, haven't we? A fly, a bee, a wasp, they irritate us en masse.
            Recently, on holiday with my family, a restaurant we visited was encumbered by flies, to the point where after each chip consumed I found myself swatting the air with ire.
            Whether or not the flies were declaring war on my family, and using our food as a symbol of conquest each time they landed, only to secure a narrow escape, I do not know. What I do know is that many of the little buzzing devils died during their efforts.
            And, in all honesty, I have swatted down many house flies, (don't get me started on the Great Fly Vs Carter War of 2012, that was a deeply harrowing experience), but not until recently, when somebody posed the impending question on Google+ did I truly begin to ponder the rationale behind my murderous history with flies, bees and wasps (one of which stung me last Friday...prescient karma, perhaps?).
            Why do we kill small insects that we find in our homes, or near our food/drinks?
            "Because they are irritating!" I hear some people say; "because I don't want them near my food!" protests another.
            However, would you rather have one chip spoilt, or a behemoth fifty times your size swinging for you with demonic intent?
            If you need to answer that question, you're in the wrong room.
            I would be remiss, however, if the situation was so simple, that is to say, if each time we made to obliterate a small creature, we actually remembered "hang on, I'm about to take a life," and consequently, the guilt began to rise within us, ascending to our very core, until we lowered the tempered swatter.
            I would be remiss because when we see a fly on our food, or a wasp hovering near our child, we relegate rationale and understanding beneath the survival instinct within us, and this is not something we can laud, nor excoriate, but something that, if we take a moment to consider, is often the case. Only a person of sheer indifference, I suspect, could allow either of the aforementioned situations to merely float before them.
            So, our aggression, unrelenting until the insect is a splattered mess, or until, heavens forefend, the little buzzer evades the hunting party, is forged in a fire of panic and irritation.
            Well, we are many of us familiar with panic in some sense or other. Be it something personal, such as worrying over your outfit for a job interview, or something much more ecumenical; for instance, being head of a security team during a terror threat. In this latter situation, you're required to be the very antithesis of panic, but to be so far away from something is not to shun it, nor feign incomprehension. To have to marshal against mass hysteria is to know the effects that threaten, and to know how it will affect so many.
            Panic, therefore, triggers the survival instinct, as mentioned. The desire to push not just ourselves, and not just those closest to us, but humanity as one collective unit, through this threatening warp.
            But wait, what about those of you who read Purging the Pure and remember my argument that humanity's survival mindset is fundamentally charged and served within a self-absorbed containment; that is to say, that, as in Purging the Pure, humanity would prey on itself because at that time, we are our own enemy, as was the case in the film that inspired that blog, "The Purge"?
            Well, my point is within the text, so to speak.
            Purging the Pure was my first written document on how humanity can brutalize itself, when no common enemy or threat beckons. Internecine warfare, I suppose. What I argue here and now is that, when we are threatened by an outsider, such as an insect, the situation triggers this pull together attitude that has allowed humans to control the earth and reign supreme to the point of technological advancement that allows you and I to share this conversation, even if we won't ever meet in person.
            Now, take the flies, the bees and wasps, and scale them up into a vessel filled with threats to mankind - diseases, natural disasters and of course, death. Think of one, and consider how humans pull together.
            Where I'm from, in Manchester, a huge new Cancer Research Facility is in its construction stage. Now, have you ever walked or driven past a construction site, and thought Nothing is being done apart from builders sipping tea and groaning about the rain, only to walk past a month later, and do that second-take where you have to really peruse the land, and will yourself to believe that the new edifice is a step far, far closer to being finished than you believed possible? Whether you have or haven't, my point is this: this Cancer Research Facility seems to be growing at a breakneck speed. Now, maybe the architects and planners and whoever would raise their eyebrows, but a part of me believes that, for the greater good, the human mindset would view building a CRF faster than, say, a new Tesco store.
            Wishful thinking? Perhaps.
            Diseases or animals, our species has prevailed for millennia for a multitude of reasons. We repopulate at expansive rates, and is part of that, in no small thanks, down to intercourse being an act of pleasure among humans, not just an act of reproduction? Does that, in one way, strengthen the bond when, in the fires of inchoate passion, we create a child? To reproduce in order to endure is one thing; to conceive in an act of raw, unbound love is wholly another. We are interweaving our very self with that of another person.
            Our children are the extension of our compassionate will. To see our own legacies forged and our species continue to flourish; thus, it is understandable that we protect our children from the perils, be they a fly or a rabid dog or just a common cold. We guard them, because we love them, don't we? And, deep down, are love and compassion what truly separate our species from all others on earth?

N.B. I still intend to kill flies if they come near my food.


Friday, 16 August 2013

A Double-edged Curse

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine.
            You're a soldier. Overhead, you see a conflagration of missile fire, explosions, and the thick, pluming grey smoke which is replete with loss. What sort of loss? The physical kind, the emotional kind, the worst kind. All around you, there are voices. Commands unheard or ignored in the cacophony of chaos; shrieks for help over the howling wind of gunfire; the hoarse, short-lived croaks of the dying. In the trench, head down, waiting for an opportunity to return fire, time does not wait for you to contemplate the loss of those all around. Men and women with whom you have shared a camaraderie like no other. Yet now, beyond the trenches, beyond the thick screens of dust and sweat and bile, people fighting a cause, just like you, have extricated these people from life. From your life, and from their own individual lives.
            Time does not wait to mourn; to grieve is to endure a period that moves ever onwards while you experience feeling the pain of loss that it is natural to feel. To grieve is to stand on the palpable threshold between stasis and progress, to linger with your eyes inverted towards the past, towards a time that only now seems so much simpler, so much easier. So much better.
            In your mind, in the tumult of your thoughts, you swear to avenge your fallen comrades.

And now, witness.
            A boy is watching the opera with his parents. Frightened by the show, the boy's parents take him outside for air. He feels bad, but they don't mind. It has been a lovely evening.
            A man appears, pulls out a pistol. He wants the family's money, he wants the jewels, he wants, in his mind, to reap a form of social justice. To take from those who have in order to satisfy, in this man's mind, a twisted imbalance, an unfortunate inequity born of progress and competition.
            In a struggle, the mother and father are killed.
            Put yourself in that boy's shoes. Feel the guilt he drops on himself. A guilt heavier than an anvil. Did he really need to go outside? Was he such a coward? How could he do this to his parents? Witness these questions, ladies and gentlemen. Witness, in this young boy, a clash of compassion, of conscience, of the events as they truly happened.
            Witness, and weep for that boy.

I could go on and on. The world over, there are soldiers who don't fire in time to save their friends; the world over, there are family accidents where a boy or a girl looks back and sees only their own supposed failing – cowardice.   
            These people, they have their own view of vengeance, and of balance.
            Everybody does.
            Vengeance, balance and justice.
            To quote a short story I'm writing: to see justice in vengeance was to see a double-bladed dagger, dipped tip and tip in crimson, that could never wedge itself into any mould of exacted righteousness.
            So, vengeance, balance and justice.
            Why vengeance? Why do we seek to inflict retributive hurt or affliction upon somebody? Why do we strive to deliver vindication in a world already entombed in crime and violence?
            So many of us will feel the anguish of loss. Sometimes people die peaceful deaths, passing from the now into the beyond during their final sleep, and after our mourning, when we can begin to reconcile our grief with the great memories, perhaps we are able to see that these people, thankfully, were not encroached upon for years by a debilitating disease; they were not driven to a point in their life where they felt that outside of their walls waited nothing, and no one.
            We can be happy, too, that they were not murdered.
            No crime is greater, we know that, you and I. To take somebody else's life. To steal away somebody's wife, grandfather, daughter. To amputate somebody from a life in which they had aspirations, dreams, loves, fears and secrets similar to any other human, but unique because they were that person's alone. All of this, cut away by somebody who thought they were above justice.
            A system of law, with structured rules and strictures dedicated to the protection and preservation of humanity, to upholding the sanctity of life, possession and a hale state of being. Justice – the measuring - through due process - of guilt, the apportioning of culpability and innocence in order to produce - what we hope will be - the right outcome. If a person commits murder, it must be for the law to try them, mustn't it? For the criminal to have to admit their crime; to understand the vicious act they have committed, to see that the self-serving path they followed has hurt others. But there is one extra, fundamental function beneath the surface of justice.
            It maintains humanity.
            To quote my short story again: to mourn somebody killed was to ever know the acid tastes of rage and disgust, never grief alone. If they were a friend, family, if they were loved, would not the mind be remiss if vengeance and hate did not conspire to realign all that was, and is? This is not my view. It is the view of a character confused by loss and the deaths of so many around him. Vengeance. The act of bringing a balance to the wrongdoer in order for them to feel what you feel, for them to appreciate the hurt pulling at you deep within your core. Is this the aim of vengeance?
            Justice keeps the victim's head above the water. Justice is the wise man who puts his arm before the one on the path of vengeance, and he whispers, leave it to justice. Justice is humanity refusing to degrade itself to heinous behaviour; justice is society turning away from the twisted lure of crime; justice is...justice.
            Easily said when within us, hatred and anger flare up, wanting us to swear our lives to a path of vengeance, right? Take The Oresteia by Aeschylus. Agamemnon is killed by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra; both are on the path of vengeance. Aegisthus for his father, Thyestes, and Clytemnestra for her daughter, Iphigenia. The trilogy itself continually focuses on the curse of vengeance. Where is the balance satiated?
            If A kills B, then won't C avenge B? But then, will D, a great friend of A, want C "brought to justice"? – yet it is never as easy as telling a murderer to stand and be tried before a jury, is it? And so, as D would no doubt do, actions are taken into the hands of the victim, of the afflicted, of the hurting. Is it right? I don't think so, but only in recent times have we had a justice system which extends across entire nations. What were people meant to do when a marshal or a magistrate wasn't due to arrive for days, weeks, months?
            I don't have the answer.
            It is hard to break a cycle, and one of vengeful bloodlust is no doubt the hardest of all. Aeschylus creates a scenario where, were it not for Orestes being tried and absolved because of his rationalization of the curse and where it had to end, could his tragedy not have gone on and on until not just a family tore itself apart, but a nation?
            Vengeance is neither justice nor balance. It is a shroud of lies and false righteousness. This asseveration is the only one I make.

Any comments are welcome.


Friday, 9 August 2013

Beneath the Glass

The dedication or devotion to a thing, in an immoderate and/or compulsive standard or quantity. What I've just paraphrased, folks, is the Oxford English Dictionary's online definition of the term addiction.
            Alcohol, drugs, food, exercise, loud music, reading, sleeping. Can we be addicted to any of these?
            I've never tried drugs but the others, conglomerated together, occur during parts of my day. On Monday I downloaded Dream Theater's single, The Enemy Inside, in avid anticipation of their eponymous album. I had my bass speaker turned up; canorous melodies, thought-provoking lyrics, and a technique, style and structure to be heard playing over and over and over and...see my point?
            What else have I done this week? Well, I read a lot, for starters; I have exercised – football, tennis, walking, thinking (my favourite type of exercise as I can be lay down for this one). I have consumed food. Sausages, potatoes, mussels, bread, fish, fruit, vegetables. And haven't most of us eaten many of those things, and exercised and listened to music loudly? I've slept, unlike...some people. Ah, and yes, I have indulged in the occasional libation. Yet, have I over-indulged in any?
            The aureate aura surrounding the sheer wonder, the marvellous mystery, of a gin and tonic, of a glass of red wine with oaky overtones or a Chilean, spiced style. Doesn't matter, I still drink it. (Thank you for that encouragement, Father.)
            In my first year at university, my thing was Gordon's Gin. Most of the time, I consumed this wondrous mix of juniper and whatever else with Indian tonic water. Once or twice, a stiff shot was the more necessary course. As a student, the tonic water - from time to time - wasn't that important, when I had to fund the gin itself. A lime wedge, three cubes of ice, and I was set. In that first year, the writing day got going when the slight tang wet my lips, when the first sip of strong booze broached my senses' awareness.
            What followed was a lot of poetry. Oftentimes written whilst listening to The Smiths, too. Gin: Mother's Ruin, eh?
            One day before a football match, a friend asked me if I had consumed alcohol already. I hadn't (shock) but he didn't believe me. That I played reasonably well helped my case. After the game, which my team had won, the lads traversed the town, clubbing, playing drinking games, chasing girls who just might have been interested. I don't know, I was in my room with a Word document open and a glass of Gordon's cradled in my hands. Each to their own, my friends.
            Was this an addiction - did I feel devoted to this drink? Was I dedicated to exploring the rich taste, the powerful sting of tactile sagacity being weakened? Was I addicted to gin?
            From research, reading and experiences all around, addiction presents itself as a problem not considered as egregious as it really should be. "Oh, he's an alcoholic." Some students in Aberystwyth, and probably everywhere, view an individual's capacity to consume threatening amounts of alcohol as a symbol of social triumph. "I could drink you under the table." This is a challenge that holds beneath its surface of rivalry, beneath establishing deference and cementing some intangible position in a hierarchy, a whole lot more. That people view alcohol (a life-weakening drug) as a method of separating the men from the boys, shows a change in how alcohol has transformed in its function. Now, alcohol is the weapon each gladiator chooses on his epic adventure into bars; alcohol is the libation of courage before the inebriated "misunderstanding" that occurs outside of the bar, too. Perhaps for a lot of people, alcohol isn't the addiction - but social supremacy? Perhaps, for some people, everything is a tool, with a function towards superiority?
            Don't get me wrong. Alcoholics, true alcoholics, no doubt do need a drink every day, at certain times, of certain potency. And this, my friends, is where we must tread the treacherous paths of distinction between addiction and obsession. Between geas and function.
            Addiction forges obsession. To be obsessed is to see your thoughts and feelings succumb to the desire of an idea, thing, person, lifestyle. To be addicted is to devote physical energy into the satiation of this desire. And when, through rehabilitation or a financial penury, the object of the addiction is revoked, rejected and forced away, there can be trauma. Severe trauma. Trauma impels us to see a desire as a need.
            Desire and necessity. How many times have you heard somebody say "I need..." when what they usually mean is "I want..." - how many times?
            Water, food, shelter, clothing. These are needs human beings still struggle to acquire in certain places. They are so basic, and ironically, so crucial to our subsistence, that they are now taken for granted in the "First World". Are we all to blame? Has inundation of a resource led to profligacy? Is being able to splurge away what our ancestors risked their lives for an act of sheer wastefulness?
            Whether or not you see it so, these basic commodities have paved the way for indulgences to become such commodities, and each to their own. Does a teenager need to play a video game for 12 hours a day; does a child plied with sweets need that extra chocolate bar; does the man earning millions of pounds a year need that annual 5% pay rise? These desires we see as attainable, and so we promulgate that we need them, because to declare need is to arouse the attention of those around us. To encourage sympathy from them, to awaken the "what if roles were reversed?" gambit. And lo! Often, now, in this decadent world, greed is sated, if only temporarily. For that is the rub with addiction, is it not?
            Social supremacy - the need to be superior amongst a group of friends, colleagues, whoever. It exists. Oftentimes it can be mistaken for determination, drive, ambition. Alas, in such instances, these elements of the human drive have merely been tainted by the solipsist's desire; they have been made a need through constant application by people who need (or desire?) to be seen as a leader.
            But they are not leaders, they are bullies. Seeking to demonstrate superiority. This addiction is a perfidious path indeed; however, not always a path we choose. For need born of desire is not the raw, inchoate need to survive, it is a vengeful sort, filled with envy, jealousy and a refusal to see the goodness in the world around us. Leading, ultimately, to a railing against goodness; towards an ingratitude harboured by not possessing something somebody else possesses, be it materialistic and thus avaricious envy, or something internal, deeper and therefore, stronger. This creates bullies.
            Was I an alcoholic? Not in the slightest. I lived the student life, I knew when to stop during a time of deep thinking. How do I know I wasn't addicted - there was no obsession. Never were my thoughts bound by alcohol, never have I needed a drink, only desired one.
            Thus, I cannot comment on what it is to be an alcoholic, but addiction more generally - why, everybody loves sweets and games when they're young, don't they?

Credit and thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary for definitions of "addiction" and "obsession" which I have paraphrased.